Continuing in our online series of meeting our mighty cast of 13 for Henry V (on stage through March 10 here at the Folger), we are pleased to spotlight James Keegan, who plays Pistol in Shakespeare’s final history play. Mr. Keegan starred in more than 75 roles in more than 45 productions at the American Shakespeare Center, including the title roles in King Lear, Titus Andronicus, and Prospero in The Tempest. He received his PhD in English Literature at the University of Delaware and has been an Associate Professor of English there since 1996. James was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and answer a few questions from us. We hope you enjoy – and don’t be bashful, we encourage all comments and questions.
Folger: Share with us your experience of working at the Folger.
James: This is my first time treading the Folger boards and I could not be more pleased because, as a classical actor who particularly loves performing Shakespeare, I have long wanted to work on this stage and in this building. My son, Tom, worked here last year, playing Cassio in Othello, which Robert Richmond also directed, and Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew. I couldn’t have him thinking he’d outdone his father, now could I?
Folger: What specifically draws you to the play Henry V? What is unique and special about this particular play?
James: I love this play for the unflinching and complex way in which Shakespeare looks and war and at kingship, as well as for his examination of the varied social strata and cultural heritages that contribute (however grudgingly at times) to nationhood. Also, I think between Henry and the Chorus, the play has some of the most stirring and evocative speeches Shakespeare ever made.
Folger: What is your favorite Shakespeare play – and why?
James: I have three favorites in three categories: Comedy—Twelfth Night because the play deals so beautifully and musically with the twined themes of love and loss and because Act 2, scene 4 (between Orsino and the disguised Viola) is one of my favorites; Tragedy—King Lear for its exquisite structure and shattering ending and Act 4, scene 7 (the touching recovery scene between Lear and Cordelia); and History—Henry IV, Part 1 because it is a beautifully balanced play and because, well, Falstaff, Falstaff, Falstaff.
Folger: What is your favorite moment that takes place on stage in Henry V?
James: The famous Crispin’s Day speech; Zach Appelman does such a beautiful job with it; he seems always to me to be coming to each phrase in the instant of speaking it. It is a pleasure to be one of the “band of brothers” who is standing on stage to receive it.
Folger: How does your experience teaching English Literature in a university setting help you most in preparing for a role like Pistol?
James: This is kind of an impossible question to answer. As corny as it may sound, art and literature feed the soul and the performance…any performance, arises from there. I will say that it is very helpful to have taught and performed in the plays of Christopher Marlowe, especially Tamburlaine the Great, because Pistol seems very influenced by those stage heroes and imitates their sound although he does not actually possess their courage.
Folger: Pistol has great swagger and is a bit of a braggart. But tell us true, who runs the household…you or your wife, Mistress Quickly?
James: If this question were about Falstaff, the answer would be easy. Nell Quickly was never a match for Sir John’s wit and charm. But I’d have to say that, here in Henry V, the swaggerer and the hostess have cut a deal in which they are equals: he is a support to her and guard against her loneliness; she is a meal ticket for him but also offers a large and loving heart.
Folger: What would you like people to take away from this performance as they leave the theater?
James: So many things—we work as an ensemble of actors to present a unified story—and that has been a real pleasure to be a part of, but I will speak from the position of the character I play and say that I am very pleased with the way in which Robert Richmond has constructed and highlighted Pistol’s story in the play. I hope the audience will leave the theater thinking about a Pistol—an ordinary lower class man—who is not merely the “cowardly braggart soldier” comic figure, but a man who experiences the privations and tragedies of war and is marked by them.
We would like to thank James Keegan for taking the time to answer a few questions for us — and make sure you come and see James on stage…Henry V closes March 10th!